As the Trump-Putin summit in Finland brings increasing scrutiny and deliberation to U.S.-Russian relations, Congress has finally begun to deep-dive into a lesser known interconnected issue: A Putin-allied Russian oligarch who has unobtrusively wrested control of the sovereign country of Georgia.
It appears Ivanishvili’s ambiguous grip on Tbilisi is an attempt to play the part of a U.S. strategic partner while answering to Moscow.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian-schooled oligarch who made billions in the corrupt feeding frenzy on an industry in post-Soviet Russia, led the “Georgia Dream” coalition to power in 2012. A comparable playbook has been used to influence policy in nearby Ukraine, disrupting that country’s economic and democratic evolution.
As founder and financier of the Georgian Dream Party, Ivanishvili abandoned his Russian citizenship to return to Georgia to become the country’s prime minister in 2012. After establishing power by installing loyal individuals — who were part of his vast business empire — into senior government positions, he abruptly left office in 2013. Despite resigning, he remained the de facto head of the Georgian government.
Ivanishvili formally returned to the chairmanship of the Georgian Dream Party in May 2018. Last month, he further tightened his grip on power, forcing the country’s prime minister and his entire cabinet to resign as a result of undisclosed “disagreements” with the oligarch. Few were surprised when another loyalist puppet was appointed by Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili’s covetousness for unmitigated control isn’t confined to Georgia’s government. The Putin ally is working vigorously to expel American businesses operating legally in the country. Take for example Georgia’s recent moves to expropriate energy interests in the eastern region of the country. Since 1997, Houston-based company, Frontera Resources, has invested more than $500 million in its “Block 12” license area. The company has financed significant technology and capital development to develop oil and natural gas resources in Georgia. The result has been the identification of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.
Frontera’s investment in the country has given Georgia the prospect of energy independence and placed it on a path to become a net energy exporter. This capability is a precious commodity in a volatile region of the world, where Russia has weaponized the supply of energy as a geopolitical tool. Despite this, Georgia is attempting to systematically transfer the company’s holdings to the state under the guise of an international law. If successful, Moscow’s grip on Georgia and Europe writ large will remain undiminished via the latter’s reliance on Russian and Russian-influenced energy resources.
Unfortunately, Frontera’s experience is not an anomaly. Another U.S. company, Miami-based Georgian American Alloys’ local Georgian subsidy, Georgia Manganese, was expropriated by the Ivanishvil led Georgian Government in a sinister, covert action — to the benefit of Moscow and the detriment Tbilisi.
These overtly hostile actions aimed at American enterprises have rightly gained attention in Congress. Both the House and Senate have recently passed language in appropriations bills addressing the Georgian government’s progressively antagonistic actions against American business interests. Congressman Pete Session (R-TX) identified in the House the amplified aggression from the Ivanisvilli government toward American interests. Further, Congressman Steve Russell (R-OK), a longtime critic of Ivanishvili’s dangerous influence in Georgia, introduced the Georgia Fair Business Practices Sanctions Act of 2017, winning bipartisan support.
These steps by Congress are critical considering that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Georgia gained its independence, the United States has sent more than $3 billion to the country to bolster its national defense and grow the economy. American aid continues to pour into Tbilisi, making Georgia, with its four million people, one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid per capita.
The takeover of a sovereign government by a Russia aligned oligarch may not make headlines like tanks rolling into Crimea or the covert proxy war in Ukraine. The result is the same — Russian control. If Georgia continues with antagonistic, unlawful acts against American interests, Congress must act. The millions of taxpayer dollars being sent to Tbilisi does nothing but line the pockets of a hostile, Russian puppet. U.S business, American taxpayers and the people of Georgia deserve better.
Greg Keeley is a retired Lt. Commander. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pacific. LCDR Keeley served as Senior Advisor to Rep. Jim Saxton and Rep. Ed Royce in the U.S. Congress. LCDR Keeley was the National Cybersecurity Institute’s inaugural Visiting Fellow.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.